Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Mercado Santa Anita: Law and Order or Crushing the Little Guy

Peru faces two great social problems that, though distinct, spring from the same roots and feed off and complicate one another. The first is the obvious one that you can read about in the statistics: poverty. Nearly 50 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line; only around 30 percent have formal employment.

Moreover, not much has changed as the economy has stabilised and grown in recent years, exacerbating the sense many people feel of exclusion from the formal system. Without employment, property, or credit, a large section of the population has to get by however it can.

The second big problem is the disorder and insecurity which plagues much of the country, and especially Lima. The headlines feature high-profile crime such as murders or holdups of interprovincial buses. But for many people, it's the low-level annoyances that grate most. The rampant petty theft. The dirt, rubbish, and pollution. The dirty, noisy, unlicenced kombis causing accidents through dangerous driving. Disrespect for laws and regulations; poorly maintained premises with exposed wiring. Strikes and marches that block roads, cause delays and damage property.

For many Peruvians, the second problem is even more pressing than the first. This is not just an attitude of the elite or the middle classes; on the contrary, it's often those with very little who are most driven to despair by what they sum up as 'all the informality'. This is because the disorder undermines their tranquility, security and dignity. With these qualities, material hardship can be managed. Without them, it verges on the unbearable.

The current, potentially tragic situation playing out in the Mercado Santa Anita in Lima, and the public response to it, exemplifies the confusing collision of these two problems.

The Mercado Santa Anita is an 82-hectare compound on the outskirts of Lima. It's currently the scene of a stand-off between local authorities and several hundred stand-holders who have operated their businesses there for around five years, and for nearly four weeks have been resisting a court order that they vacate the premises.

The court says the land belongs to the Municipality of Lima, who are planning to construct a modern wholesale market on the site. Those currently occupying the area say that they have rights through their occupancy and investment in their businesses, and claim that the Municipality plans to sell the land off to the Peruvian's favourite bete noire - 'Chilean interests'.

As the police prepare to storm the premises to eject the occupants, there's been a sense of foreboding and worries that if blood is spilled, it will create a lingering, bitter rent in the country's already strained social fabric.

I'm indebted to Peruvian blogger Peruanista for a fuller historical account of the market's background than can be gained by perusing official sources.

The idea for a wholesale market in Santa Anita was first conceived in the 1960s, and in 1974 ex-president Fernando Belaunde signed a decree expropriating the land for use as an agricultural wholesale market. The terrain passed into the hands of the Municipality of Lima in 1984, but - as tends to be the case with grand projects in Peru - development plans made little progress. It was in 2002 that the market was occupied by several thousand agricultural producers and wholesalers, who, despite efforts to remove them, established themselves, invested in their stands, and more or less prospered.

As always in Peru, it's more complicated than just the struggle of common people to get ahead. A Machiavellian figure called Herminio Porras, one-time congressman in Fujimori's party, has been prominently involved in illegitimate sales of land in and around the market. He's currently under house arrest, but his dealings have already sparked a couple of violent incidents, and no doubt have a part in the poisition some of the occupiers find themselves in.

With all legal recourse now exhausted, the occupiers of the market have turned, unsuccessfully, to various sources for intercession. The People's Defender begged off the case, and Catholic bishop Luis Bambaren quickly gave up a mediation role. President Alan Garcia has also washed his hands, saying that 'if someone invades your house, you don't negotiate with them about the conditions under which they will stay'. Not quite a fair analogy - people don't normally leave their house abandoned for thirty years!

One hesitates to throw around the expression 'corporate media' as a slogan. But much as I appreciate the contribution of TV channel 90 Segundos to keeping me up to date with events in Peru, their coverage of the issue has ben less than balanced. The sight of attractive, smartly-dressed young TV presenters haughtily bemoaning the disorderliness and 'bad manners' of simple countryside people leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth.

The occupants have routinely been described as 'the invaders' and accused of using their children as 'human shields' to avoid ejection from the market. The occupiers argue, quite reasonably, that their children must stay with them because they're not handing them over to anybody else.

As the occupiers in Santa Anita became more entrenched and hostile to the media, coverage has become a mix of the slightly Orwellian and the laughable. Unable to get access the compound, the 90 Segundos reporters drove around the exterior for a while, then resorted to showing viewers 'satellite images' of the area (thanks to Google Earth) and models of what the market would look like when it is redeveloped ('complete with bank branches and offices'). We watched drills undertaken by squads of riot policeman as they practiced moving forward against a 'violent rabble'.

In recent days, weapons caches have been 'found' near the market and 'linked' to the occupiers. (They may well be genuine finds, but after reading Mario Vargas Llosa's brilliant depiction of the manipulation of public opinion in Conversacion en la Caterdral, it's hard to take such televised uncoverings entirely seriously). A connection has also been claimed between an NGO supporting the occupants and the Venezuelan embassy (involvement of Venezuela is the 21st-century equivalent of a Communist plot).

But the media can't be entirely blamed for the hardening of public opinion towards the occupiers. Many people see the situation as a test case for the rule of law. Some of the views expressed on the situation on a Peruvian website include:

It's time that authority is imposed in this country; Peru suffers because of the informality and disrespect for rules and laws...sadly it seems that everything is done through marches and blocking highways - we're part of a country of savages. (Eduardo Ojeda)

It's time that somebody got this house in order. It's not possible that, as much as people might think themselves "poor", they do whatever they feel like with that excuse....If we want the country to progress and for the people to have a better standard of living, we must start by complying with the laws and rules. (Jorge Torres)

The occupants' leader Fernanidino Nieto has hardly helped the situation by declaring that "rivers of blood will flow" if they are ejected. But there was also some nobility in his response when the water and electricity inside the compound were cut off a couple of days ago. 'We don't have electricity in our farms in the countryside", he laughed to reporters. "Our light shines from our eyes'. If ever a Naomi Klein-type voice was needed to tell the other side of the story, it's now.

The glimmer of hope amidst all the tension is that Peruvians never quite lose their sense of humour, or of absurdity.

In one recent TV clip, a young man on security duty for the market occupants was closing a gate to the market compound as a young TV reporter tried to peer in. "Hey, what are those tyres for?" she asked, pointing to a pile of old tyres inside the gate (the presumed intention is that they would be burned as part of resistance to any police invasion). The young guy glanced over his shoulder. 'Those tyres, seƱorita?', he asked innocently. For a moment, you could see him figuring whether he should try to deny that any such tyres existed, or come up with a totally implausible story about their innocent purpose. Then he remembered he was supposed to be a tough guy, grunted "I can't tell you", and shut the gate.

And if anything (temporarily) trumps the struggle against poverty and disorder, it's the chance of a spectacle. By the weekend crowds had gathered around the market, expecting that the police would be coming along to dislodge the occupants. As it happened, they had decided to put if off for another day. This left a lot of people milling around, attracting many itinerant vendors, who were able to sell screeds of gum, cigarettes, and soda.

A middle-aged man in the classic yellow uniform and mobile trolley of D'Anafrio ice creams was doing a roaring trade among the throngs of bystanders. He confirmed that the possibility of a market being stormed was good for business. "This is how we make our living" said the D'Anafrio man.

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